From Dawn To Decadence (Jacques Barzun).

jacques barzun from dawn to decadence

Its title makes Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn To Decadence a suspense story. We know the “500 Years of Western Cultural Life” that the subtitle describes will end in decadence; what we don’t know is exactly what Barzun means by the word. Are we in for another rant by a disillusioned nonagenarian about badly-dressed teenagers who spit in public?

Sorry to give away the ending, but the answer is: Yes.

When the rant arrives, it comes as a bit of a surprise. In the prologue, Barzun has defined decadence in non-cranky terms:

All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off”. It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through.

This is a fair description of our time. And through the first 750 or so pages of the tome – covering roughly the Protestant Reformation to the Second World War – the author exhibits an openness to each innovation that seems to promise a fair and measured present-day outlook.

The thing is, I agree with Barzun’s description of our age as “decadent” – as he defined it above. I think it’s pretty obvious that our forms of art are exhausted. As a guy who in his more grandiose moments has fancied himself an “artist”, I sincerely hope that someone out there is working to free us from the drain-spiralling recursiveness of post- and post-post-modernism (whatever those concepts actually mean) – cos I for one haven’t got any fresh ideas.

I think Barzun’s error is that he snatches too readily at evidence of decadence in our daily lives. For instance, he describes in his chapter on “Demotic Life and Times” (i.e., the present day):

[T]he public schools were also a regular setting for violent acts. Armed guards patrolled the corridors to keep the peace among the pupils; teachers were assaulted to the point where the danger became an expected risk to the profession…From their early teens, pupils carried guns, assaulted each other, and on occasion committed little massacres by shooting into a group at random with a rapid-fire weapon.

This is all technically true, but I doubt that in a few decades the average adult will look back on his elementary school days as the anarchy of gunplay and teacher-beatings that this paragraph describes. For the most part this kind of daily violence has been restricted to poor districts that, in the United States, at the time of Barzun’s writing (the late ’90s), were already beginning to recover from an epidemic of crack- and gang-fuelled self-destructiveness. And after all, as this book makes clear, mass public education and the welfare state are still fairly new phenomena; it’s going to take us a while to get the formula down. Mightn’t lousy schools merely be the result of short-sighted, ill-advised policy choices, of the kind that have led nations into much worse violence in centuries past, rather than a symptom of uniquely modern cultural malaise?

Barzun goes on:

[C]hildren found at home no encouragement to schooling, no instruction in simple manners, no inkling of the moral sense. Some of the waifs bred in that way were those who took to drugs, became thieves before their teens, and committed the conscienceless crimes falsely called mindless. They formed gangs, boys and girls together, with able leaders and strict rules. It was they, not prime ministers, who reinvented government. And when they joined to it so-called Satanism, they rediscovered ritual if not religion.

Hey you Satanic gangs, get off my lawn!

Maybe by taking these intemperate passages out of context, I’m doing Barzun a disservice. Most of the examples he provides are more convincing than those above, and some of his overreach can be excused on the grounds that the dude was ninety-three years old when he wrote the book. I shudder to contemplate what a sour old fuddy-duddy I’ll be when I reach that age.

Barzun isn’t all fuddy-duddy. Yes, he seems weirdly incensed by the United States’ toleration of flag-burning: the subject comes up three different times. But he also musters a strong defense of that conservative bugaboo, relativism. While he isn’t in the least bit interested in modern popular music, he evinces no overt distaste in his passing discussion of jazz. And he goes out of his way to give women thinkers and writers their due, to the extent that it sometimes seems like mere tokenism: a section on 19C female travel writers is basically a list of funny, forgotten British names (Lady Florence Dixie, Mrs. R.H. Tyacke, The Hon. Impulsia Gushington, and so on).

His final chapter anticipates the couple hundred years to come: the population will split into a ruling technocratic elite and a larger semi-literate lumpen class who let drop their democratic responsibilities through indifference; they will live in a world overseen loosely from Brussels and Washington but really broken up into quasi-sovereign regions run by mutually hostile corporations. It’s all pretty familiar from recent science-fiction: a bit of Philip K. Dick, a bit of cyberpunk, a bit of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Compared to those dystopias it actually sounds pretty okay.

Here once again is my more pessimistic prognosis for the next few centuries: the reflexive ironists who make up my emancipated, individualistic cohort having better things to do with their time than make babies, we will increasingly be outnumbered by old-fashioned True Believers – Muslims or Hindus or Mormons or Christians of various stripes – who breed because they think it’s their duty. In a few generations there won’t be enough of us left to keep the True Believers from each other’s throats. Each sect being convinced of the unerringness of their message, they will make war on one another until one of them, doesn’t matter who, comes out on top. Or maybe after a few decades they’ll get smart and come to some kind of accommodation. What kind of culture the survivors will impose, I have no idea. I’ll be long dead by then. Perhaps I’ll have uploaded my consciousness into a computer and the digital me will watch sadly as the barbarians have their day.

Likely something good will come of it eventually. When that flowering emerges, its ironists and individualists can look back to Barzun’s book for a sense of how things might play out.


I was heartened to come across these lines in a chapter on French drama:

These same elements are today what makes Racine, for one, hard to follow on the stage. The unprepared listener grasps the sense of the action but – as often in Shakespeare – the involutions of the thought are too fine to seize at the speed of their delivery.

That’s about right. Awful pretty it sounds, but when a couple characters in Shakespeare are bouncing lines off one another, sometimes you’re left in the dust, forced to keep track by watching who’s stabbing who. Of course the solution is to know the plays in advance. But it is my shame to admit that I’m still unfamiliar with a lot of the big ones: Lear and The Tempest and the Henry plays, most egregiously. I mean to catch up, but there’s always something more pressing for me to read.

I’m happy when someone smarter than me confesses that watching or reading Shakespeare is occasionally less than an unalloyed pleasure. In an earlier chapter Barzun has explained how in Shakespeare’s own day he was considered inferior to his contemporary Ben Jonson, and he excerpts some of the passages which Jonson might have been referring to when he wished Shakespeare had “blotted a thousand lines”. I wouldn’t mind if he’d blotted twice that many.


Influenced by the columnist Mark Steyn and by Mike Judge’s film Idiocracy, I developed my prediction for the decline of civilisation first here: “I think women should give up breeding altogether and we should grow our babies in bottles”

…and then here: “Of course, baleful predictions about the end of the world as we know it usually turn out to be wrong by approximately one hundred percent”

…and most recently here: “I always thought I was immune to end-of-the-world despair because, unlike the Utopianists, I’m not eager for the apocalypse at all. I rather like things the way they are”.

Update, July 26, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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